tv The Battle of San Pietro and John Huston CSPAN December 31, 2014 10:45pm-11:36pm EST
out how he would regain his place and his life. and you know, it's very hard to convey now what a seismic impact the best years of our lives had. this was the dawn of a new age of social realism in american movies when american movies started dealing in a more head-on fashion with the day-to-day realities of what people were going through, whether it was alcoholism or nervous breakdowns or in this case, something that all of america was exposed to, which was the readjustment issues faced by returning veterans and faced by the people they were returning to. by the end of its run, the movie, which swept the academy awards the year it came out, was, you know, the third or fourth highest grossing movie in hollywood history. and wyler went on to an extraordinarily distinguished career throughout the 1950s and '60s making movies like the
heiress and detective story and ben-hur. in fact, his career goes all the way up to 1970 when he retired just before making the movie that he had really hoped to be able to make, which is the movie that became "patton." >> mark harris is the author of "five cameback" a story of hollywood and the second world war, and among the directors he features, william wyler. thank you very much for being here with us on c-span3's american history tv. >> thank you. you've been watching a special presentation of our reel america series. join us every sunday at 4:00 p.m. eastern for more archival films by government, industry, and educational institutions. watch as these films take you on a journey through the 20th century. again, that's reel america, every sunday at 4:00 p.m. eastern here on american history tv on c-span3. we want to tell you about some of our other american history programs. join us every sunday at 6:00
p.m. and 10:00 p.m. eastern for a look at american artifacts. travel with us to historic sites, museums and archives to learn what artifacts reveal about american history. again, our show is american artifacts every sunday at 6:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. eastern, here on american history tv on c-span3. and we'd like to hear from you. follow us on twitter @c-span history. connect on facebook at facebook.com/cspanhistory where you can leave some comments. and check out upcoming programs at our website c-span.org/history. each week american history tv's reel america brings you archival films that help tell the story of the 20th century. in the last of a five-part look at hollywood directors who made films for the u.s. government during world war ii, we feature director john houston and the battle of san pietro, a 32
minute u.s. army film depicting the 1943 battle which destroyed the town of san pietro, italy. praised for a realistic portrayal of a battle that killed over 1,000 americans the film was composed almost entirely of re-enacted scenes. before showing the film we speak with film historian mark harris. the book is titled "five came back: a story of hollywood and the second world war" and joining us from new york is mark harris. as we look at some of the leading directors from this time period including john houston. what can you tell us about him? >> well, houston was a really fascinating, larger than life figure. his career in hollywood was just starting when the war broke out. he had had a kind of ne'er-do-well adolescence, and early 20s, he had been involved in a few car crashes. he fled to paris at one point. his reputation was really not great. and then he came back to hollywood, started to build a
reputation as a screenwriter, particularly with the help of william wyler, who was something of a mentor, and very good friend to him. and then just before pearl harbor, had his breakthrough success with the first movie he directed, "the maltese falcon." and you know, he had a chance to make about one and two-thirds more movies. he had to leave for the war and his service in the war before completing a movie he was making, which reunited the cast of "the maltese falcon" called "across the pacific." >> so much focusing on the post traumatic stress of those who returned from vietnam or more recently in iraq and afghanistan, i want to ask you about one of two films that he put together, this one from 1945, "let there be light." what did he bring to the american audience about this condition, and these servicemen, mostly men, who returned from world war ii and what they faced? >> well, "let there be light" is a remarkable documentary.
it -- houston was asked about making what the army felt would be a propaganda film. the propaganda element of this was that the movie was intended to show that these men could recover incredibly quickly, and it's almost specifically intended to be aimed at american small and mid-sized businesses who needed to be told that it was safe, in fact, to hire returning veterans. someone's hysterical paralysis, for instance, is cured under hypnosis.
the propaganda element of this was that the movie was intended to show that these men could recover incredibly quickly. and the film was specifically intended to be aimed at american small and mid-sized businesses who needed to be told that it was safe, in fact, to hire returning veterans. that it would be easy to reintegrate them into society. houston took that assignment eagerly, and in fact, wanted to make that movie. and the last two-thirds of "let there be light", which focuses very heavily on miracle cures. >> you're back here now. you've forgotten it. but you remember who you are now. who are you? dully, that's right. full name now. dominic dully. that's right. >> he really did the propaganda job in that movie, but the first portion of "let there be light" is an absolutely searing and nonpropaganda portrait of just how shattered these men were by their war experiences. you see these young men in their intake interviews with army psychiatrists, and they're just devastated, empty voice, hollow eyed. >> do you feel conscious? are you aware of the fact that you're not the same boy as you were when you went over?
do you feel changed? >> yes, sir. >> how long were you overseas? >> 11 months. >> were you in any combat at all? >> six months. >> this would have been the most vivid and by far the most honest look that any american audience had ever gotten at the psychological trauma caused by war. i say would have been because the army suppressed the film. after houston completed it, the army did everything in its power to prevent its release. the movie was not shown publicly until 1981. houston spent decades after the war trying to get it shown, and finally only succeeded thanks to the intervention of walter mondell. >> that 35-year period of the censorship that he faced, was that unusual for directors in this time period?
"let there be light" is the only movie to have been suppressed from the war over a very, very long term. while they were making films for the army, these directors constantly battled restrictions, accusations from the war department that they were going off message, that they couldn't include footage, for instance, of american bodies. that they had to always show american soldiers as brave and confident. >> we're going to show the movie the battle of san pietro, which came out in the 1940s. what can you tell us about this one? >> it was shot by john huston in italy. it was intended to be a document commissioned by frank capra of the successful u.s. effort to
free a small ancient village with -- told to go to italy in search of a town that could provide images like joyful and grateful villagers emerging from their hiding places with rounds of cheese and loaves of bread and casts of wine to greet the victorious americans. huston got to italy and found the right town, but the battle was already over. the town had been retaken. there were no villagers in sight and it was mined with german traps. so what he did with the full knowledge and enthusiastic cooperation of the army, was to restage the battle. the battle of san pietro, this film, is fake. it's all re-enactments. re-enactments done on that location and with actual u.s. soldiers, but none of it was
real. it was very successfully passed off to the american public as predominately actual battle footage. the army put out press releases saying huston and his men were so brave that they actually preceded the army men on the front so that they could turn around and film the soldiers approaching which is one way that you know that a documentary has been faked because film makers don't go first. what's interesting is that even though it is a big fakery, only a minute or two is real footage. it also helped make a vocabulary for what battlefield realism looked like.
huston didn't fake the movie because he wanted to put something over on the american public. he faked the movie because it was the only way how to convey what he understood of the realities of ground combat and ground troops advancing, which is something that had not been successfully shown in an american documentary before. so even though what you're watching isn't real, what huston is going for in the movie is, in fact, a kind of realism. it turned out to be a kind of realism that was very influential on many filmmakers after the war in terms of creating an understanding for us of how to shoot battle footage that looks like real battle footage. >> mark harris, thanks for that explanation. and here is that film from the mid 1940s by director john huston, "the battle of san pietro." >> in 1943 it was one of our strategic aims to draw as many
germans away from the front and french coastal areas and to contain them on the italian peninsula while liberating as much of italy as might be possible with the means at our disposal. as the bulk of our supplies was directed to england for the forthcoming invasion, operations in italy had to be conducted on an extremely limited scale. thus, it came about during the winter months, the number of allied divisions in italy was greatly reduced. yet so determined was their effort that they succeeded in holding in italy a very large number of german divisions. during the preinvasion period. san pietro in the fifth army sector was the key to the liri valley. we knew it and the enemy knew. we had to take it even though the immediate cost would be high. we took it and the cost in
relation to the later advance was not excessive. by its very nature, this success worked bitter hardships upon each individual soldier calling for the full measure of his courage and devotion. the response of our fifth army troops providing an inspiring page in our military history. to these individuals living and dead, and to those who now continue in their tradition, this picture is dedicated. ♪ ♪
liri valley lies in the italian midland, some 60 miles northwest of naples to some 40 miles southeast of rome. a wide flat corridor enclosed between four walls of mountains. in winter, the highest peaks of the liri range ascend into the snows but the valley floor with its olive groves and ancient vines. its crops of wheat and corn is green the year around. italians in normal times. last year was a bad year for grapes and olives. the fall planting was late. many fields lay fallow.
there are two ways from the south end of the valley. one, a narrow pass, it the other a high scenic road over the mountains. they converge from the sight of the ancient village san pietro. where for 700 years it has stood on the shoulder of the valley, welcoming the travelers. the stones of its walls were queried out of the apparent hills. population 1,412 at the last census. a farming community. patron saint peter. point of interest saint peters. 1438. note, interesting treatment of chansal. from the end of october 1943 until the middle of san pietro
had seen some of the bitterest fighting in the fifth army front. they entered the second phase to push forward again after a static period brought on by heavy seasonal rains. our battle lines were as haphazard as the rains itself. each river seemed like five. and where there was no river to cross, a mountain blocked us. each meter ahead being a few higher so each new peak had to be fought for the hard way with the enemy looking down our throats. they had time to fortify their positions. no amount of artillery fire could force them to withdraw. that was for the infantry to do,
employing those weapons in the trenches. in fighting holes. it was up to the man with the rifle. the man under fire from all weapons. the man whose way all our weapons land, air and sea serve only to prepare. it was up to the foot soldier to attack a hidden enemy over ground that was sown with mines. the anti-personnel "s" mines that fly up and explode beneath the groin. nowhere along the entire front were enemy preparations more elaborate than the san pietro area. for san pietro stands at the threshold of liri valley, and through liri valley wide and level runs the most highly prized length of groves south of rome. by early december we were taking and holding high ground. the hill mass being last to fall. an italian brigade under a live command made a grave attempt to capture mount luvo.
it would have acted greatly in our benefit to the impending action. the italians were all but annihilated. in a few of their excessive losses, further operations against mount luno were abandoned. and it was decided to make a direct frontal assault on enemy positions in and around san pietro. elements of the 36 texas infantry division were rotated from position to position overlooking the valley so that troops might study the terrain ahead from various viewpoints. patrol activity was continuous. day and night units went out on the ground to draw fire, take prisoners, thus adding to the sum of our information about the
enemy. high points. mount lungo was 351 and mount sammucro, all manned and force. the town itself was strongly garrisoned, with numerous mortar, machine gun and heavy weapon in placements. four enemy battalions were dug in place that ended from the base of mount lungo northeast across the the valley floor to the base of mount sammucro. another battalion was organized to defend the high ground northwest of san pietro. areas before these positions were heavily mined and held a confusion of barbed wire and booby traps. on the afternoon before, d-day
and hr were communicated to the italian commanders. december 8th, at 0620 hours, the first battalion of the 143rd infantry regimen to attack the summit of 1205, having moved up the mountain under cover of darkness and having achieved its objective to attack along a ridge to the northwest of san pietro. the third range of a battalion likewise to attack 950. another feature of the mount sammucro hill mass. the second battalion of the 143rd to attack near the olive orchards northeast of san pietro. the third battalion acting in support to follow the second at 400 yards. of the original force to establish, the 143rd had since spent all but a fortnight under action in extremely bitter weather conditions. at the crossing, it would take mortal punishment. the task ahead promised no less
bloodshed, yet it was undertaken in good spirits and high confidence. the first battalion began the long rugged climb up mount sammucro. ♪ as night fell, our artillery opened up and throughout the night hours, intense fire was laid down on the enemy's main line of resistance. it had rained most of the night, and it was raining at 8 hours when the second and third battalion lines crossed the
attempts to reach pill boxes and throw hand grenades through the narrow gun openings. the third battalion was committed. but the advance never got more than 600 yards past the line of departure. our initial assault on san pietro had been repulsd with heavy casualties. the attack on hill 1205 however was a brilliant success.
leading elements of the first battalion had gained the objective before a strongly entrenched enemy knew that an assault was in progress. to the right of 1205, the third range of italian had also captured its objective, but only after excessive attacks and costly casualties. for 950 the enemy was not taken unaware. counterattacks would be expected on both 1205 and 950. they were not long developing. the first was launched during
the early daylight hours and even as it was beaten off, another took form. day and night they followed. unremitting violence. the toll of enemy dead mounted with each new attempt. the german prisoners captured on 1205 and 950 said they'd been ordered to retake those positions at all costs. in addition to defending hill 1205, the first battalion obedient to the field order undertook the reduction of enemy defenses which were organized running west.
[ gunshot ] >> on the 12th of december, the first battalion was reinforced by the parachute battalion which took over the defenses of 1205 and 950, thereby enabling the first battalion to throw its entire remaining strength into the assault along the ridge. but the first strength had dwindled and shrunk in the five
days past, and there was now a question as to whether its existing numbers was sufficient to prevail. reports during the night of the 14th of december stated that the enemy was offering bitter resistance and that the issue was in grave doubt. meanwhile on the olive terraces below, the second and third battalions had twice again attempted to reach their objectives. both times they came up to a wall of automatic weapons mortar and artillery fire. volunteer patrols made desperate attempts to reach enemy positions and reduce strong points. not a single member of any such patrol ever came back alive. our attacking forces were finished with excellent ariel cover by live fighter patrols
but now and then enemy planes were able to slip through and to bomb our positions, which to all purposes had remained unchanged since the first day. to break the deadlock, orders were given for a coordinated divisional attack. the second and third battalions. 143rd were to proceed in the execution of the original orders. acting in conjunction company "a" of the 753rd tank battalion were to attack san pietro from the east over the high road. one was to attack over the flat valley floor. after nightfall on d-day, the 142nd infantry regimen to attack mount lungo. the earlier decision not to attack those strategic points having been reversed in view of the present critical situation. in preparation for the attack
the 141st infantry advance some 400 yards from its line of departure to be born down powerless under the weight of enemy fire. the second and third battalions of the 143rd advanced some 100 yards beyond their former positions to a point almost directly before forward enemy defenses. for the third time they were
forced to take such cover as the quaking earth could offer. and the tanks. orders were for them to enter the town to locate and destroy the heavy weapons there, which were levelled against our attacking foot soldiers. the high road in the san pietro is a narrow mountain road, and from the beginning of its winding dissent in the the liri valley, it was under direct enemy observation. 16 tanks started down that road. three reached the outskirts of the town. of these, two were destroyed and one was missing. five tanks were immobilized
behind enemy lines, their crews having to abandon them. five tanks hit enemy mines within our lines and were thereupon destroyed by enemy gun fire. four tanks returned to the vivoak area. after dark, two companies, one in the second battalion and one from the third finally succeeded in penetrating enemy positions. but receiving both frontal and flanking fire, they were forced to retire. company e having been reduced in strength to a handful of riflemen and company l fairing little better. on the ridge, the first
battalion fought its way within a few hundred yards of the objective. but the ground gain at a man a yard and did not have strength to carry the fight any further forward. on mount lungo, however, despite bitter resistance, battalions of 142nd in successive waves kept pushing upwards until in the early daylight hours of the 16th of december, the foot soldiers had gained the summit and were wiping up what remained of a stubborn enemy, and that proved to be a key position in enemy plan of defense, for even as mount lungo fell, the enemy throughout the san pietro area made preparations to withdraw.
almost invariably, the enemy will counterattack to cover a withdrawal. the first violent thrust was delivered within a few hours. thereafter, counterattacks came in waves. the roar of the last mingling with the russian fury of the next to break. many countries lost all their officers. enlisted men came forward as inspirational leaders to rally their battered companies and resist yet one more onslaught. our own artillery was brought to fall within a hundred yards of our front line elements. after five hours, during which the earth never ceased to tremble, counterattacks ended, indicating the withdrawal of the enemy's main body had commenced.
♪ entering the town, they discovered that san pietro was ours for the taking. the second and third battalions less than a rifle company in strength, weary to death, who were alive, stumbled forward past san pietro to consolidate gains and re-establish contact with the enemy and now taking up positions some 5 kilometers beyond. that is the broad shape of the battle of san pietro which is the first of many battles in the
liri valley. it was a very costly battle. after the battle, the 143rd infantry alone required 111 -- 1100 replacements. the lives lost were precious lives to their country, to their loved ones, and to the men themselves. for the living of the 143rd infantry regiment, more than 100 deck riegss decorations for acts
of valor for those who went above the call of duty.orations for acts of valor for those who went above the call of duty. many among these you see alive here have since joined the the ranks of their brothers in arms who fell at san pietro. beyond casino, more river and mountains and more towns. more san pietros, greater or lesser, a thousand more. as the battle passed over and beyond san pietro, westward, townspeople began to appear, coming out of their caves in the mountains where they stayed in hiding during the enemy occupation. they were mostly old people and children. ♪
of an incidental nature. but the people and their military innocence look upon us solely as their drivers. solely as their deliverers. it was to free them and their farmlands that we came. behind our lives southwest of the sea, the fields are green with growing crops planted after our coming by other people of other towns believing likewise. the new one earth at san pietro was plowed and sown. it should yield a good harvest this year. >> the people pray to their
patron saint to intercede with god on behalf of those who came and delivered them and passed on with the noise of a passing battle. ♪ director john huston and the director john huston and the 32-minute film "the battle of san pietro." joining us from new york is author mark harris. what is your takeaway from this film?
>> you know, it's easy to look at this film and say, got you. you said you were telling us the truth but you actually lied to us. now, i think if you watch the movie knowing that it's restaged, some of the restaging becomes obvious. i feel that there are beautiful and remarkable things in this movie that we now take for granted. for instance, the way the camera jumps and shakes when a grenade goes off or who there's purported enemy fire. that was a technique. it's a technique that we understand to be part of the language of war movies to be seen on screen but it was something that huston in a way invented. when john ford who made the battle of midway and the film
threw out when shrapnel hit, he surprised many people by leaving it in the movie. by leaving something that looks like a mistake in the movie. huston, better than any director from that period, understood that realness, roughness, rawness, imperfection, could be taken by audiences as a sign of truth. and even though he faked it, he faked it with a powerful understanding of what he felt war really looked like. so you know, you can't watch san pietro anymore and take it as truth. i went to the national archives and watched the outtakes, the footage that huston didn't use in the movie. it was interesting to see that he systematically discarded anything that looked too clean, too perfect, too hollywood. that is the mark of a very smart
filmmaker and someone who really understood that war movies were going to have to look different than how they had looked until that point. so as a document of filmmaking history, i think it's fascinating, and as a war document, as a document of the length -- the lengths to which the army would go, including stretching or ignoring the truth, i think it's also a really important part of america's war daughter is the -- film making history. >> and of course, john huston's daughter is the award winning
actress anjelica huston. did he fully understand the work that it had later in his career? >> i think that, you know, huston certainly lived long enough to understand that he was absolutely revered and venerated as a director. unlike many of the other directors that i wrote about, huston directed vigorously until the very, very end of his life. not all of the movies he made were good. he read into some reasonable problem and was very honest about the fact that he took certain jobs to get the paycheck. if you look at the movies made at the end of his life like fritzys honor and under the volcano they are some of the best movies he ever made. >> those who read the book 5 came back. a story of hollywood in the second world war. >> what do you want the reader to take away from your research? >> i hope that i've conveyed to them something about what it was like to be a hollywood filmmaker in a world that is so different from the one we're in now. you know, it's inconceivable to
imagine a war now in which one-third of hollywood's adult male workforce would drop their careers and go off to film overseas for three or four years. you know, all of the men i write about had their flaws as people and their complicated personal issues, but we understand in many ways what world war ii looked like and felt like because of the work that they did. it was all work of a kind that they had never done before. it was an extraordinary leap of effort and sacrifice and thought for every single one of them. and what they left us is a legacy of world war ii on film that has deeply informed everything about world war ii that has been filmed and much
that has been written since. >> mark harris is a columnist for entertainment weekly. he's also a contributor to new york magazine. his book is titled "five came back." a story of the hollywood and the second world war. thank you for being here on c-span 3's american history. we appreciate your time. >> thank you. you've been watching a special presentation of our reel america series. join us every sunday at 4:00 p.m. eastern for more archival films by government, education and institutional departments. watch as these films take you on a journey through the 20th century. again, that's reel america every sunday at 4:00 p.m. eastern here on american history tv on c-span 3. we would like to tell you about our other american history programs. every saturday you can join us for a look at the history bookshelf. tune in as the the best writers of the past decade talk about their books. again, that's history bookshelf
every saturday at 4:00 p.m. here on american history tv on c-span 3. and follow us on twitter at c-span history. connect with us on facebook where you can leave comments and check out our upcoming programmings at our website, c-span.org/history. the c-span cities tour takes book tv and american history tv on the road, traveling to u.s. cities to learn about their history and literary life. this weekend we partnered with time warner cable for a visit to austin, texas. we are in the private suite of lyndon and lady bird johnson. this is private quarters. i mean that. this is not part of a tour offered to the public. this has never been open to the public. you're seeing it because of